Unpacking

Why, yes–I did move back in May. And yes,  I’m still unpacking.

I’m down to the boxes where I find the kinds of things that can gut you just a little bit, if you let them.

I have always loved this photo of my girl. There’s something in it that captures exactly who she was then and is now and, I suspect, will always be. It’s in the line of her mouth, the set of her shoulders, the directness of her gaze. And, too, in the flush of her cheeks and the tender curves of her legs, dangling because they are too short, yet, to rest on the pegs meant to support them.

Earlier today,  I wrote a long-postponed letter to the daughter of a man I loved when he and I were young, who wanted to know more about the person her deceased dad once was, and I shared tea with someone from high school who I didn’t know then but wish I had, and sun shone through the rain-splattered window we sat next to and warmed us as our talk flitted from one age we’d been to another, quickly, as if we knew we couldn’t fit nearly enough of three decades of living into a too-short hour, so later this afternoon, when I lifted the flaps of a box to find this photo that I framed nearly twenty years ago, past and present wove themselves into a sheer tapestry shot through with metallic threads of joy and grief and gratitude and regret, forming a scene in which words such as “past” and “present” have no meaning, in which everyone I love and have loved and will love were simultaneously all the ages they ever were and ever will be–and just for a fleeting moment, it was almost as if I could hold it all in my hands, tangible as actual fabric, almost as if I could put words to it that could tell the excruciatingly beautiful facts of our brief existence true.

But I couldn’t. This is the best I could do.

I’m still looking for the right place to put these things, a shelf that can hold the weight of them.

 

Dear First-Year Teacher Me,

I found your journal in a box in the garage this summer. Not your real journal, your “fake journal,” the one you wrote in at the beginning of every class so that you could model journal writing for your students. I love that you dutifully modeled all year long even though you felt it fake and doubted its value–because how else would I be able to revisit you now, 28 years later, and be able to see so clearly who you were?

In just that one short entry, I see all of you, First-Year Teacher Me: your candor, your questions, your limitations, your doubts, your pragmatism in the face of those questions and limitations and doubts. While your journal has more than one outrageous statement that I know you didn’t really mean (“freshmen should be shut up in cages until they are juniors”),  I see how much you wanted to do right by your students.

I love not just your journal entries, but also your lesson plans and lists of things to do, even as they make me kinda want to cry, seeing how seriously you took it all. Could anyone have ever been so earnest about planning for freshman cheer practices? (Yes, you could. You were. God help you. Call on socks!)

As I read these pages full of to-do lists and time logs and lesson plans and journal entries, with their stories of botched lessons, no curriculum, departmental warfare, unclear purposes, cynical colleagues, and endless meetings, I want so badly to reach back in time and give you such a hard hug. I want to tell you that, yeah, you were doing a lot of things wrong, but you were also doing a lot of things right. I want to sit you down and assure you that, no, you’re not a weak whiner–that year was hard, real hard, harder than it should have been.

Oh my god, First-Year Teacher Me, just the log you kept of your hours! (Remember how an administrator suggested you do that? So you could see where you were “wasting time”?!) No wonder you were so exhausted and cranky. No wonder that fragile baby marriage of yours didn’t survive it.

It was so strange and unsettling, to read the words of this person (you!) who is both me and not-me, and to see you laboring so hard to author the beginning of a story whose plot line is now irrevocably written. There’s no revising it now, much as I might like to. There are only the next chapters, which are in some ways as much a mystery to me now as yours were to you then.

You see, I found you during a summer in which I was surprised, again, to find myself in a place I don’t want to be. It was a summer of unpacking. Unpacking boxes. Unpacking relationships. Unpacking a home, a career, a family, a life. Back in early August, not long after I found you, I was reading Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass, in which she quotes Jung–

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.”

–and those words pushed me, who has so often felt my life directed by things outside my control, to unpack yours. As I read and re-read them, part of me felt for you the tenderness I always feel for the young and floundering, but another part of me felt so frustrated and impatient (and if I let myself go there, close to despairing) as I listened to you, First-Year Teacher Me–because in too many ways you could also be Fifth-Year Teacher Me or Fifteenth-Year Teacher Me or Last-May Teacher Me.

As I looked back at you through the tunnel of your journal, I could hardly believe how many of the questions and struggles you wrestled with then would follow you through your whole career. Are, in fact, still with you today, 28 years later. I don’t know if you could have stood knowing that when you were 25.

I can hardly stand knowing it now–and seeing that you already had so many of the answers (or at least the beginnings of them) then. You just didn’t know you had them. You just didn’t listen to yourself. What I can see so clearly from here–what your words have made conscious for me–is that you were in a toxic situation that you endured by taking whatever positive crumbs you could find and letting them be antidote enough to keep you alive in it.

And that is how you are going to get through the next 27 years. First Year, you are going to change schools, jobs, husbands, and homes in search of peace, but it is going to elude you. You’ll spend some years frantically cultivating other opportunities, but you’ll never take them. You won’t know why, not really. You’ll wonder if it’s because you are too cautious or too weak or too scared, and some years those wonderings will tear you up, but near the end, when you finally realize that it’s too late to come up with a different answer to the question of what you are going to be when you grow up, when you find this journal in a garage in the middle of a difficult summer, you’ll understand that you stayed more because of love than fear.

Love is always the reason you stick with hard things. Some part of you, deep down, loves the people you serve and work with, and you aren’t going to walk away from them. Some part of you, even deeper down, loves and can’t give up on the wildly beautiful noble idea of public education and its promise that through it anyone can become anything. Nor can you give up your belief that words can save lives, and that what the world needs most is not your words, but more people who can read everyone’s words and write their own.

I am not a fan of martyrdom, so I’m not going to tell you that you that staying was the right thing because you did it for love, which conquers all. It doesn’t, nor should it require self-sacrifice. But neither am I telling you that you should have walked away. Walking away from love should be a move of last resort.

What I can see so clearly, so consciously now, is that even in your first year the problem was never lack of belief or discipline or caring or even skill, much as you doubted all of those things. They are all your greatest strengths, but what you didn’t know then is that our greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses are always two sides of the same coin. Your dedication to people and ideals and your determination to use your gifts in serving them is both the source of your power and the thing that will zap it. It is the push that makes you long to leave the work and the pull that holds you to it. It’s what fuels both your best moments and your worst.

When we love it is sometimes so hard to know where lines are or need to be: between want and need, between supporting and enabling, between our allies and our enemies, between others and ourselves, between right and wrong. I see you crossing back and forth over all of those lines, again and again and again, and I can see that perhaps you didn’t need to leave the path; perhaps you just needed to walk it differently.

I hesitate to even write these words to you, First Year, because they can so quickly be used to keep us from seeing and addressing larger societal and systemic issues that make this work so hard for everyone I know who does it. But what you need to do–what we all need to do, if it can be done–is to figure out what you sensed then:  Learn how and when and why to say “no,” so that you will be better able to say “yes” to the things that will allow you to love better. And the first thing you have to say “yes” to is yourself:  A dead martyr can’t serve anyone.

Some say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I don’t know about that, but I do know that things sometimes work in ways we’d never expect. Who would have ever thought that it would be you, faltering First-Year Teacher Me, with your fake journal scribbled together in brief moments at the beginning of your classes and the middle of cheer practices and the last moments of your too-long days, that would impart such important lessons to Nearing-End-of-Career Me? Certainly neither of us, but I’m glad that you wrote these words down that appeared, somehow, from a box I hadn’t looked in for years. Thanks, Teach.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A different kind of falling

This house of mine and me, we’re not the stuff of fairy tales. I did not fall in love with her at first sight (or second or third or fourth…), and while I’m hoping we’ll live happily together I don’t think it will be ever after. (But you never know, do you? You really never know. Boy, haven’t I learned that.) Ours is a practical  union, forged by the things each of us needs and can provide the other.

We’ve been together since mid-May. I’m still not all unpacked, and the kids’ rooms were a disaster for a good two months and still aren’t functional. (But they don’t live here, so that doesn’t really matter. Hate to think how much energy I’ve wasted on things that don’t really matter.)

At first, for a lot of reasons having little to do with the new house and everything to do with why I left the old one, I didn’t like her much. Oh, I tried, but some nights I wandered alone around her rooms with “Once in a Lifetime” playing on repeat in my head, feeling like somehow things had gotten completely away from me. Even though I’d made my choices consciously and knowingly, even though I felt, given the things I’d accepted I could not change, that I’d made the right ones, my brain couldn’t stop singing, My God, what have I done?

At first, I thought I would move the things I loved best from the old house into the new, and that would make it feel like home.

It didn’t.

None of them really fit in this new house, which I blamed on the house. But to be honest (which I was having a hard time being with myself), my heart was broken. There was no sexy new romance of any kind (house or otherwise) to keep me from feeling all of its jagged edges, and those reminders of what I once had just made me feel my losses more deeply.

One low day I took down all the art I most associated with Cane and the life we’d had together and put them out in the garage. That felt better, and I began to understand that it wasn’t the new house’s fault that our things didn’t fit within her walls. I began giving previously beloved items away, keeping only those that didn’t carry strong memories of what once was.

I also started bringing out things that had been stored in boxes for years, things from my family. At the same time I was moving, my grandmother died. When I returned from her funeral with items from her home,  I found that they didn’t fill me with sadness, even though they, like those from my old house, might have been fused in my heart and head with loss. Instead, they grounded me in who I was back in the beginning of my life, before I ever had a home of my own. Sometimes they made me sad, too, but it felt like the right kind of sad.

I kept telling myself that I needed to unpack the boxes with practical things, but instead I spent hours arranging sentimental objects and working in the garden, pulling and deadheading and cutting back and planting. Those tasks felt more necessary than finding my extra towels or kitchen gadgets.

As I did those things, I started to feel flickers of affection for the new house. I began to feel her charms, not just tell myself that she has them, and when a trip away went several kinds of wrong and I longed to go home, it was this house, not my earlier one, that I wanted.

Still, it’s been a process. It is a process. We’re a work in progress, the house and me.  When I’m really not feeling it from or for her, I sometimes pick up my camera and wander the rooms and garden looking for things I can love. I zoom in close, so I can truly see them, framing them from different angles in order to find the ones most pleasing. (As my friend Kate recently said to me, “there’s something to be said for cropping.”)

I’m finding that love this time–for the house, for my life in it, for my new, transforming-yet-again self–is not about a sudden falling. There isn’t even anything I could call love yet, but there is gratitude, and it is something that’s growing through the small things I’m collecting and discovering and doing over time:

A bouquet I cut from the hydrangea bush and arranged in a pitcher on the kitchen table.

The way the afternoon light spills across the sofa now that we’ve thinned the shrubs in front of the windows.

My mother’s childhood milk cup placed against the backdrop of a thrift store painting.

Morning birdsong in the weedy part of the yard I haven’t yet tamed (and might not).

A quilt top my great-grandmother pieced and that I spread on the bed in what will be my son’s new room.

The patina of a worn dresser that’s become a potting table in the greenhouse, where I hope to grow flowers and vegetables from seeds next spring.

The more I’ve noticed, the more I’ve realized that the things turning this house into home are those I could take to or create in any place I might live. They are things with the right kind of history. They are the things of and from me, not the architecture that surrounds me–things I can carry with me when I once again find myself starting over. Because some day I will. Isn’t life always the same as it ever was, in more ways than it sometimes feels we can hardly bear knowing?

7-Day Book Challenge: Dear Fahrenheit 451

A recent text from my friend Lisa:

I bought you a gift.

We’re an odd couple, Lisa and me. She grew up in Miami, and I in Seattle. She is heat and wildfire and in-your-face and I am cool and rain and passive aggressive. She owns a pair of green leather pants and a bright yellow Mustang convertible. I wear a whole lot of denim and drive a tired Volkswagen Jetta. But there is no one on this planet I laugh harder with than Lisa, which is why we are friends.

The last surprise, no-obvious-reason-for-a-gift she gave me was a black belly-dancing bra covered with gold beads and sequins. Not because I belly dance (I don’t). But because I “needed it.” (I kinda did, but that’s fodder for another story, for another time.) So, I felt a little thrill of anticipation when I read her words. I never quite know what to expect from Lisa, which is one of my favorite things about her.

I think she may have clapped her hands in delight when handing me her gift:

I’m pretty sure I did when I saw it. “Oh, I want to read it right now!” I said.

“I know. I really debated when to give it to you. I thought about waiting until the end of our visit so you wouldn’t be distracted the whole time.”

I devoured about half the book in my first sitting, and now I’m doling it out to myself in little bits at a time. I love it because it is a book for those of us who love books. It’s not serious or weighty (something I sorely need these days), but some letters deliver a good, sharp punch. Really, the best word I can come up with for it is delightful–funny, poignant, witty, smart. It’s full of insider book nerd/librarian jokes, and while you might need to be a bit of the former to enjoy it, I don’t think you need to be the latter. It’s a book I wish I had thought to write (and then actually written), but I’m sure I couldn’t have written it as well as the author has.

While I love it for its own self, I know I love it even more because it was the most wonderful kind of gift: one given for no other reason than the giver saw it and knew the recipient should have it. Which means, of course, that the giver has already, in so many ways, truly seen the recipient. And what better gift is there than that–to be truly seen by someone you love?

Thanks, Lisa.

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

 

 

7-Day Book Challenge: Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail

I stole this book from the King County Library system. I didn’t forget to return it. I didn’t lose it and find it years later. I made a deliberate, conscious, and purposeful decision to keep it because I needed it and back in 1981 I didn’t have any way to get my own, lawfully-owned copy.

I happened upon it by chance; I worked as a page at the Burien library, which was, it seemed to me, a rather twee (though it would be years before I was introduced to the concept of “twee”) job title for those of us who shelved the library’s returned books. Sorting and shelving books was a fabulous way to discover titles I’d never have otherwise found, and this was, perhaps, the best of the treasures I uncovered, for it helped me find a way back to writing.

Kind of ridiculous to think that, at 17, I’d already lost my way as a writer, but I had. Actually, considering all the ridiculous things we do and say to children around the subject of writing, it’s not ridiculous at all. At any rate, I’d lost my way, and this book helped me find it again.

“What do you do with this book? There aren’t any rules. Start anywhere and go anywhere….If a teacher likes the book, don’t let her (or him) shove it down your throat and make lessons out of it, unless that’s the way you want to use it. And tell your teacher, if you have to, that the kind of writing this book is about isn’t a spelling assignment, or a lesson in grammar or handwriting or how to make paragraphs. This writing is to get down your good ideas, and what you think and feel inside.”

–Jacqueline Jackson, Turn Not Pale, Beloved Snail ©1974 Little, Brown and Company

The author, Jacqueline Jackson, wrote children’s books that I didn’t find particularly compelling but this book gave me a vision of what life as a writer could be:  One filled with kids and books and talk about books and humor and joy and mess-ups that were not failures or potential triggers for frightening adult anger but material for great stories. (There’s a whole chapter on the merits of being horrid!)

This was no how-to-be-a-writer guide that required me to live my life as a loaded gun or end it with my tragically young head in an oven. It was a book full of anecdotes and kids and dogs and mishaps and references to books I already loved (Harriet the Spy!) and books I was sure I would love as soon as I read them. A big part of me, even though I was nearly grown, longed to be a child in this household. (Her children had wonderful names–the youngest was Elspeth–and they had a dog named Frodo! Who knew you could do that?) Since it was too late for me to have that kind of childhood, I dreamed that some day I might create such a life for the children I hoped to have.

The title is an allusion to Lewis Carroll’s “The Lobster Quadrille”:  “Turn not pale, beloved snail, but come and join the dance,” and this was the first book I read that suggested that the path to writing was not, in fact, to shut oneself up in a room with one’s demons but to enter into life as fully as possible and live to tell the tales. It probably doesn’t seem such radical stuff now, but for a good (read: “compliant”) student in the early 80s struggling with what she’d later know was anxiety and depression, the idea that there was a whole different way to learn about writing and to live as a writer than those I’d been taught was ground-shifting. Life-saving.

The librarian in me now would be perfectly fine with the younger me keeping this book.  (But you don’t have to steal it now. Amazon has multiple old copies available.)

(This was written in response to a Facebook challenge to post photos of the covers of 7 favorite books in 7 days with no commentary. Clearly, I’ve broken the no commentary rule–shocker! I’m not as compliant as I once was and tend not to follow rules that seem arbitrary. Who says the 7 days have to be in a row? And why 7? Not sure how many I’ll do. Feel free to nominate yourself for the challenge.)

Where was your outrage when…?

My children had, in many ways, an idyllic, throw-back childhood. We lived in a small mountain community, where neighborhood kids spent countless low-supervised hours tromping through woods as they acted out epic dramas in imaginary kingdoms built on the banks of the creek and river that ran past our homes.

On the 4th of July, most of us gathered for a parade, led by a local fire truck and an older, beloved couple who dressed as Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty. We all decorated bikes and wagons and walked with the kids and waved to neighbors who lined the streets and waved back. Like something out of a movie about times gone by–except it was our time.

I miss those days.

I miss how sweetly innocent and simple the 4th of July felt then. I miss the optimism I felt for our children’s futures. I miss my ignorance–which was, in many ways, bliss.

Because it’s all different now. My children are grown, and the 4th of July will likely never again be a sweet, simple, or nostalgic holiday for me. This year, I cannot look at this picture of my babies without thinking of the thousands of children currently being held, by my government, in cages away from their parents. I can’t help thinking of their parents and the pain they must be enduring as they imagine that of their children.

To all those who have asked/accused people like me, who are horrified at these actions and are raising our voices against it, Where was your outrage when___ (fill in the blank)? all I can really say is, “You’re right.” They aren’t always right about what actually happened in the past, but their question gets at an important and essential truth:  Our governmental institutions have been responsible for unjust, painful, outrageous actions all through my life, and I did not protest most of them. I didn’t even know about a lot of them.

Recently, my daughter asked me how I could bring children into such a difficult and troubled world (“just the climate issue alone, Mom!”), and the only answer I could give was that I didn’t understand, when I was making that decision, how troubled our world really is. “How could you not?” she demanded of me. “All the information was available.”

She is not wrong.

And I don’t have any kind of good defense. The second time Bush won the presidency through a questionable election, I checked out. I decided my contribution was going to come through my work as an educator and parent, and that that was enough. I stopped paying close attention because paying attention frustrated me and made me feel powerless and because–I understand now, but didn’t then–my privileges shielded me from the impact of so many things that were happening. I told myself that none of it really mattered that much. Life goes on, went on, much as it always had, for me. I checked out because I could. Simple as that.

There’s really no excuse for me not knowing the things I didn’t know then, but I know them now. And you know how it is with so many truths we don’t really want to know:  Once we know them, we can’t un-know them.

I can’t un-know that people of color have a very different lived experience in this country than people who look like me.

I can’t un-know that I have lived my whole life in a country founded on white supremacy, and that race has been at play in every aspect of our history.

I can’t un-know that we are in a place I never thought we could be but that I should have known was possible. The balance of powers is gone, as are collective agreements about how to play fair in a democracy. There appear to be very few checks still in place, and the ones that remain are under attack.

And this is knowledge I cannot simply turn away from, much as part of me wishes I still could.

It is not so much that I’ve become “woke” as that I’ve just started to pay attention again. To pull my head out of the sand. And to all who ask, “Where was your outrage when___?” all I can say is, “Fair question, but it’s a time-waster, a diversion, a straw man.”

That I wasn’t outraged when ____ does not invalidate my outrage now.

Just  because I (and so many others) failed to protest in the past, it does not mean we should be quiet now or that our protest now lacks legitimacy. It does not mean that past wrongs justify current ones. And it does not mean that our outrage now is only because we don’t like your guy. To be clear:  We don’t. He’s a racist, misogynistic, corrupt, dishonest man who’s surrounded himself with people a lot like himself.

The important fact is not that we dislike them as people, but that we don’t like what they are doing. We don’t like elimination of due process, violation of laws, and irreparable psychological damage done to children for political gain. We don’t like their lies and their abuses of power. We don’t like the ways in which they have not played fair. We don’t like any of them because collectively they pose a greater threat to our country than any I’ve ever seen. I like to think we’d be against that no matter who occupied the White House, if we knew about it.

What I know today is that patriotism requires so much more than fireworks and colorful streamers woven through the spokes of a bicycle wheel. It requires that we inform ourselves, seek out truth, and, once we know it, speak it to authority–through our words, our votes, and, if necessary, our protest. As the bumper sticker says, Dissent is Patriotic. Good Lord, as much as our country was founded on white supremacy, it was also founded on dissent. We have always been a complex, contradictory nation, one who idealizes tradition and decorum with the same breath we use to smash them. Our understanding and celebration of our country–our patriotism–should be equally dimensional.

While I’d like to wish you a happy 4th, that doesn’t seem the right sentiment this year. In fact, what I most wish for your 4th is that it be a complicated one, a mix of love and pride and anger and alarm and–above all else–one of resolve to preserve the best of what this day has traditionally stood for. Our children need that from us, much more than they need sparklers and streamers. (But hey, I hope you enjoy the sparklers and streamers. We need those, too.)

 

 

 

The life you save may be your own

“Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.

Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is it like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you’ve only read about, or the one next to you in bed?

We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and star-crossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we’ve been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or a supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing all around us.”
~Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

When I was a girl, stories were everything to me:  solace, companionship, beacon, and guide. Much later, stories literally saved my life.

The story I’ve been telling myself this past week is that we are living in a dark time. I believe this story to be true, even though I’ve wanted to believe otherwise–to believe that, perhaps, I’ve got the story wrong or that I’m not seeing all of it or that I’m giving too much importance to the wrong details. I think there is great danger in telling ourselves stories we want to believe even though they aren’t true. I believe this because of my own story, the harm I’ve done because I believed stories that later collapsed around me.

I am fully cognizant, though, that others in my country are telling themselves an entirely different story about who we are and what is happening to us. About who are the protagonists and antagonists and what the central conflict is, about whether that conflict is internal or external.

While there is so much I don’t know, and the versions of the dark story I am telling myself shift so much that I can’t seem to chart a constant course through it–some days fired up to take action and others so hopeless I retreat to silence and solitude–one thing I always believe in is the power of story to shape story.

So many of the stories I grew up believing have proven to be false. So many of the stories I’ve told myself have, the past few years, turned out to be fairy tales or myths or wishes more than truths.  The wonderful thing about being a writer, a teller of stories, though, is that you know revision is always an option. When we are open to the stories of others, we always run the risk that it will change our own–that we will realize we have to “kill our darlings,” perhaps throw out whole chapters or abandon what once seemed like the whole point of the thing. To some, I guess, this feels like ruin. We love our stories, and we don’t want them to change. But to me, it feels like possibility and relief. How amazing and interesting and freeing, that none of us are the sole authors of our plot line or themes, that it is always something we create in concert and collaboration with others, that a plot twist we never anticipated can save us. It’s such a burden, isn’t it, to feel that we alone must carry the weight of writing our own story? Maybe we can set that one down.

Whatever story you are telling yourself now, what I hope is that you will tell it to others, that we will all tell our stories to each other and listen to them with empathy. I hope you will listen most to the stories of reliable narrators, those who are seeing clearly rather than clinging to sinking ships and in their panic thrashing at and pushing under those who are in the water to save them. I hope we can collectively write and tell and share our way to a lighter time, to a narrative in which we strapped our lifeboats together and hauled into them as many of us as they could hold.

 

Scratchy voice

A few years ago, I used to try to call my grandmother on Sundays, and often when she answered her voice would be thick and scratchy. She’d clear her throat and explain that she hadn’t spoken to anyone all weekend, and so her voice wasn’t clear.

It is the same with writing–when the words haven’t come through our hands in awhile, they feel a bit clogged and it’s hard to get them out. The only remedy, I think, is to just start. To trust that our voice will find itself if we just start using it again.

I don’t think I wrote about it directly, but I began this year with a vow that I would not end the next one as I’d ended the previous three. I suppose if I had the gift of foresight and were still interested in such things as choosing a word for the year, mine for 2018 would have been “grief.” I knew, on New Year’s Eve, that things needed to change–and I changed them–but change is always ending and ending (at least for me) always has at least some element of grief to it.

In the months since I last wrote here, I left the home that was always more dream than simply a place to live. I lost the grandmother I used to call weekly (and then wrote to weekly), ending my run as a grand-daughter. I made and put into place a plan for finishing my career. I’m living in a place of more questions than answers, which is perhaps how life should always be, but it’s new for me. I am wading in as much possibility as loss, but sometimes all I can see is empty horizon. Sometimes I get knocked down by sneaker waves of sadness or anger. But other times I walk in deep enough to release my legs and float. It’s good to remember that floating is an option, always.

This isn’t much of a post, but it’ll do. Off to unpack some boxes and put up some shelves and pull some weeds.

 

Of docks and churches and libraries and love

Over the past few weeks, promises that once tethered me to the dock of my life have been released, and I’ve found myself flailingtreadingchurningdrifting through open water–a place that, at this age, I never expected to be. A place I never wanted to be. Still, here I am.

Some people, when they find themselves unmoored, seek grounding in a church. Me, I go to the library.

It has been a long, long time since I’ve believed in the Catholic god of my childhood. The other day in the car, as I listened to the litany of suffering and suffering-to-be that is every newscast now,  I realized that I find much more solace in the idea that there is no god controlling what happens to us. Such a god would be a pretty mean bastard, it seems to me. I prefer the idea that life’s unjust cruelties occur randomly or through the will of damaged people. It feels more kind.

For me, God–if I can even call something that–has to do with love and truth and how they intertwine and grow among and between us, here on earth, a phenomenon both intangible and real that deepens life’s joys and carries us through its miseries. I find and feel it often in public libraries and schools, where we humans offer up freely to each other all that we do and know and wonder and imagine and dream. If there isn’t something holy about a space in which all can enter and seek, in the company of others, what they need to survive and understand their experiences, then I don’t know what holiness is.

So the other day, after Facebook blind-sided me with a memory of a time six years ago, not long after those promises were made, when the pleasures of my life–light, nourishment, security, love–shone through everything in my posture and face as I gazed at the person taking my photo, and I suddenly understood in a visceral way that the foundation of that life (as well as many of its pleasures) is gone, I sought shelter, answers, communion, and comfort in the library.

All those rows and rows of books, with their multitude of words capturing myriad lives through time and space, affect me the same way that mountains and oceans do:  My smallness in the face of their immensity reminds me that while my own life is everything to me, it is also, in the grand scheme of the universe, nearly nothing, a mere speck of being passing through whatever our world is, which existed long before I did and will long after I do not. In the midst of an existential crisis, this comforts me as much as my belief that the God of my childhood is a fiction.

I wandered listlessly for a bit through the new book shelves, the fiction and home repairs and self-help, even the cookbooks, searching for something I wouldn’t know I’d been seeking until I found it. It wasn’t until I drifted into a section I long ago lost faith and interest in–poetry–that anything called to me. (You know what they say about atheists and foxholes.) It was there that I found Dorianne Laux’s The Book of Men, and in that book was Staff Sgt. Metz, a character who reminded me so much of my son, “alive for now…/…in his camo gear/and buzz cut, his beautiful new/camel-colored suede boots” that I had to keep reading.

Three stanzas in, I found a version of me, too– “a girl torn between love and the idea of love”–and in that girl’s experience of hating her brother for leaving her to fight a war “no one understood,” I heard echoes of the one that has frayed to a few threads the promises I’ve been holding so tightly to, the ones I’ve had to finally admit have not been kept.

It wasn’t until the closing stanza that I found the words I didn’t know I was looking for:

“I don’t believe in anything anymore:
god, country, money or love.
All that matters to me now
is his life, the body so perfectly made,
mysterious in its workings, its oiled
and moving parts, the whole of him
standing up and raising one arm
to hail a bus, his legs pulling him forward,
and muscle and sinew and living gristle,
the countless bones of his foot trapped in his boot,
stepping off the red curb.”

Somehow–look, I don’t know how it works and trying to explain it wouldn’t–some alchemy fused these words with my questions and pain to form an understanding that might contain a seed of salvation:

Love is not, as I’ve thought for most of my life, the dock. It is the water.

How I have lived 53 years without seeing this bewilders me. Maybe, if I had understood when I was the age of Staff Sgt. Metz and that girl and my son, what was dock and what was water, I would not find myself where I am now. But maybe not. What I am learning–in truth, what I have been learning over and over again, throughout my life–is something I might not have been able to bear knowing then:  There is no permanent solid ground. We are always just one loss away from the necessity of reinvention. At any moment we could step off the red curb and into an intersection from which we can never step back.

All that matters to me now is the fleeting body of my one life, so perfectly made and mysterious in its workings. What matters is that the bones of it not be trapped, and that the whole of me stands up, and that my legs keep moving forward.

 

 

 

I am my brother’s keeper. And so are you.

I’m thinking of my brother Joe on his birthday today. For two weeks each year we are the same age, but on New Year’s Eve he takes a step ahead of me again. In the back of my mind, all through my life, I’ve known that one of my roles is to be my brother’s keeper. It is only in recent years that I have been able to see him more fully for who he is in his own right, separate from me.

What we all wouldn’t give, those of us who know him, to have fuller access to the brilliant mind we have only been able to see at a glimpse. When Joe was preschool age, in a program focused on teaching such life skills as toileting and eating with utensils, his teachers one day realized he was reading. My parents credit Sesame Street and The Electric Company–as well as Joe’s intelligence–for that self-taught accomplishment. When we were teen-agers, he used to sit on the living room floor each afternoon and write a sports report on a manual typewriter, perfectly capturing the voice of sports reporters. He still reads the newspaper every day, follows politics, listens to religious talk radio (that one’s a puzzler for us), watches sitcoms from our childhood, and tunes into every televised game the Seattle Seahawks and Mariners play. He adores dogs. When we were kids, he taught ours to chase cars. Some of you might remember him running along the side of the road in front of our house, barking at cars as they drove past, our terrier mutt Fritzie at his heels. (The 70s were a different time, eh?)
 

Joe was not accurately diagnosed (with autism) until we were in our early 20s–which means that his entire formal education failed to address many of his actual needs or develop his intellectual potential. Academics were basic and played a minimal role in his schooling, which is outrageous to me now but did not seem wrong then. Joe was already 10 when we passed the law that guaranteed a free and appropriate education to all children, and I think my parents were grateful that he was in school at all.

While the shifts in understanding and acceptance of autism that have happened in our lifetime are wonderful to see, wondering how things might have been different for him and our family if he’d been born at a later time is a mental path I rarely travel down because it is too painful (and pointless). A lack of services and understanding have limited his life to a degree I can hardly express. The world is a dangerous place for a young, mute man who cannot/will not comply with social norms, such as following directives from police officers. My parents have done what they felt they needed to do to keep him safe in it. (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for the lose.) 

It has long seemed wrong to me that Joe’s care has been primarily the responsibility of our family alone. I am my brother’s keeper, but Joe is his own person, with his own feelings, needs, habits, and dreams. (After “graduating” from high school–which meant only that he turned 21 and was no longer eligible for educational services– he told our dad that he wanted to go to college, “like Rita.”) Joe belongs to the world as much as any of us do. What happens to the Joes in our society who do not have a safety net of family? What happens to Joe if the one beneath him frays and cannot hold? How do we value and care for those among us who cannot fit into all of our round holes? Or any of them? How can we better support them in being their full, autonomous selves?

Joe is my brother, but he–like any of us–is fundamentally yours, too. We haven’t done very well by him, in many ways. Later today, he’ll be opening a dog calendar from me. It’s what I give him every year. He’ll hang it in my parents’ utility room and faithfully turn its page on the first of every month, and he’ll be happy to have it. He seems to love those calendars. It’s fine for what it is, but I sure wish I–we– could give him more, and that in the pages of the days in the coming year he might find, in addition to cute dog photos, a life with more independence, freedom, and connection to his fellow humans. I hope that, for Joe, as we are coming to know better, we can do better. I hope it’s not too late for the boy who was born too soon.